India’s intelligence services are not simply a history, but rather a legacy, which they inherited from the British colonial empire. In the colonial years, the intelligence services were used primarily as a tool to suppress Indian nationalists. Human Intelligence was gathered mainly by the Central Intelligence Bureau, but also by, “Intelligence units of the armed forces, border scouts, Special Rangers and well groomed individual agents, besides fine groomed revenue collectors, village level officials and civil servants” (Dhar, 8). Technical intelligence existed only as mail and message intercepts. The IB claims lineage stretching back to Colonel Sleeman’s Thuggy Department created in 1887 to deal with the infamous Thuggy cult that plagued colonial India, making IB perhaps the world’s oldest intelligence service (Dhar, 83).
After independence, the Intelligence Bureau retained the British model with “minor cosmetic changes,” (Dhar, 14). The organization maintained the character of a police unit rather than an intelligence unit along the lines of the CIA, MI-6, or Mossad. Importantly, it should be stressed that India’s intelligence service continued as a bureau and not a ministry. Essentially it was, and is, a wing of the Prime Minister’s office and is answerable only to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister without any oversight from parliament.
In the 1960s, IB officers were recruited mainly from the police force and trained in Anand Parvat, where they learned intelligence trade craft, counter-intelligence, and what limited technical intelligence gadgets which were available to the IB at that time. IB officers were also trained in mountaineering in order to traverse the austere and mountainous areas of Northern India, but were not trained in sabotage or subversion at this time (Dhar, 87). Tradecraft taught included, “foot surveillance, secret writing, concealment, memory enhancement, agents recruitment and handling, secured communications, etc.” (Dhar, 90). This is where the young intelligence officer learned, “to deal with human assets, break them down to raw clay and reformat them as intelligence agents” (Dhar, 92).
In 1968, India’s insurgencies were waged mainly by the Nagas and the Naxals, many of who went to West Pakistan or East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) for training by the ISI (Dhar, 107). Other groups were reported to travel to Yunnan province in China for training. At this time the Intelligence Bureau was tasked with photographing these insurgent training camps, infiltrating agents into their ranks, and intercepting groups of trained and armed insurgents as they attempted to cross back into India. IB also used their secret funds to stand up the Village Volunteer Force, a militia designed to counter the insurgencies.
As a young IB officer, Dhar negotiated the surrender of several Naga battalions (Dhar, 115), provided intelligence to the Army to raid other Naga units (Dhar, 116), identified smuggling routes through Burma (Dhar, 127), and chased after criminals smuggling gems, gold, and rare woods (Dhar, 129). The IB also intercepted Naga radio transmissions, especially as armed groups attempted to infiltrate back into India. Documents could be stolen from insurgent field meetings if they were returned before they were noticed missing, but even into the mid-70s IB had no access to copy machines, so the Techint branch devised an improvised method to copy documents using light bulbs and thermal paper (Dhar, 185).
Although the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was created in the aftermath of China’s surprise invasion of India in 1962 to handle external intelligence, the IB continued to have a vast presence in cross-border intelligence operations. IB ran intelligence assets out of numerous border checkpoint posts on the borders of Pakistan and China. The Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute in Gangtok was IB’s mountaineering school and enabled their operatives to travel high into the mountains to send, “patrolling parties along the frequented and unfrequented routes along the international borders that were normally taken by the Chinese graziers and clandestine operators” (Dhar, 202). During this patrols IB officers were able to map out infiltration routes and on occasion snap pictures of Chinese military formations across the border.
IB was also often used for political purposes, which were entirely internal to India and had nothing to do with national defense. One unseemly episode unfolded when Dhar was tasked to recover the censored unpublished chapter of M.O. Mathai’s autobiography. The chapter was called “She” and had been rumored to exist in political and intelligence circles for years. Some parties were believed to be holding on to it as a form of political leverage or blackmail against Indira Gandhi (Dhar, 268), the then Prime Minister.
Dhar was thus ordered to recover the master copy by breaking into a newspaper’s office and stealing it. The IB officer weighed his options but was eventually trumped by his superiors and he carried out the operation. At that time Indira’s daughter-in-law controlled the master copy. Her son, Sanjay, was also reputed to possess a copy. Dhar conducted the Indian version of the Watergate break-in and discovered that the unpublished chapter of the biography contained naked pictures of the Prime Minister; material that surely would have forced her resignation had it gone public.
Not long after, Dhar was also tasked with Operation Harit, which targeted opposition members of parliament to push them back towards the Indira Congress. “This was the third time that I was commissioned to act against a constitutionally elected assembly,” (Dhar, 276) the IB officer relates. Dhar makes it clear that he carried out immoral and illegal orders (Dhar, 285) but that he had to hedge his bets and think about the future of his family, as he would be out of a job if he did not comply.
Again demonstrating a lack of clear mandates when RAW was supposed to conduct overseas intelligence operations while IB worked inside India, Dhar was also tasked to work as a liaison in Canada. He was only supposed to interface with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but since the Indian High Commissioner was not satisfied with the performance of RAW (Dhar, 289) due to some ham-handed operations in which one officer had his cover blown in the Canadian media, Dhar was tasked to keep an eye on the Sikh diaspora and monitor the growing militant movement. IB in Canada was also tasked to investigate the downing of Air India flight #182 over Cork, Ireland by Canadian based Sikh terrorists (Dhar, 303). Both IB and RAW shared massive intelligence failures during Operations Blue Star and the resulting fallout, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
With the 1980s came the era of international jihad-inspired terrorism. The unexpected fallout of the American, French, and Saudi support for the Afghan Mujaheddin was that Pakistan’s ISI embraced jihad as a fixture of foreign policy via proxy warfare as never before. ISI “assumed the role of an exporter of terrorism to the Balkans, Muslim majority units of Russian federation, Central Asian territories, and northern Africa besides its umbilical enemy India,” (Dhar, 311). Because of this IB maintained a para-military capability that could strike camps across international borders but this amounted to a game of whack-a-mole, as “no mechanism existed to plug the fountainhead of proxy war and deep penetration forward intelligence thrusts” (Dhar, 357).
IB also ran the Pakistan Counter-Intelligence Unit, which did have some great success in tracking down and neutralizing Pakistani spies but was ordered to slow down, as IB’s counter-intelligence activities were so prolific for a time that all of RAW’s sources in Pakistan were being killed in retaliation (Dhar, 359).
During the mid-80s, the IB’s TechInt (TechInt appears to also encompass SIGINT in Indian intelligence agencies) was also overhauled. Previously, agents had access to aging telescopes and bulky wireless radios and audio recording devices. It was not until around 1985 that IB adopted micro-hidden cameras for clandestine use (Dhar, 420) and pinhole cameras after 1990 (Dhar, 421).
The Intelligence Bureau attempted to reform itself after Operation Blue Star and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, but it seems that few changes were actually implemented. Bureaucrats guarded both their official and unofficial rice bowls, a briefcase culture of bribery persisted, and nepotism continued in a culture that Dhar bluntly described as, “retarded baboodom” (Dhar, 422). By the 1980s, terrorism had escalated in parts of India to the point that, “social, ethical and professional concepts were lost in the grim game of survival. A couple of senior central intelligence operatives too took to freelancing and assumed the roles of executioners. No one in a saner frame of mind could endorse what the terrorists were perpetrating and what was being pedaled as state response” (Dhar, 407).
Coming Up: India’s Secret Wars Part 3: Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)
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(Featured Image Courtesy: BBC)